What is the best time under tension for hypertrophy training? This is an excellent question! In fact, understanding how long your sets should last may be the key to unlocking the greatest gains of your entire life!
- Part 1: The Best time Under Tension For Hypertrophy
- Part 2: What Is Time Under Tension?
- Part 3: Different Types Of Hypertrophy
- Part 4: Time Under Tension For Hypertrophy Training
- Part 5: Time Under Tension For Functional Hypertrophy Training
- Part 6: Sample Hypertrophy Training Routine
- Part 7: Sample Functional Hypertrophy Training Routine
- Part 8: Alternating Accumulation And Intensification Phases
- Part 9: Conclusion
In part 1 I am going to give you a very straightforward answer to the following question: “how long should your sets last when training for hypertrophy?”
Parts 2-5 will expand upon the straightforward answer given in part 1 by explaining what time under tension is and how to manipulate your tempo depending on whether you are training for absolute or functional hypertrophy.
Finally, in parts 6-8 I will teach you how to apply this information on time under tension to your own training routines!
I wish I had access to this type of information when I first started lifting. This knowledge can and will speed up your learning curve in the iron game and get you on the fast track to reaching your goals!
OK, enough with the chit-chat. Let’s get down to business…
Part 1: The Best time Under Tension For Hypertrophy
As promised, here is the answer to your question:
When training for hypertrophy the most optimal time under tension per set is 40-70 seconds.
On the other hand, when training for functional hypertrophy the most optimal time under tension per set is 20-40 seconds.
To make it even simpler:
Hypertrophy training = 40-70 seconds time under tension per set.
Functional hypertrophy training = 20-40 seconds time under tension per set.
(Note: I’ll explain the difference between training for hypertrophy and training for functional hypertrophy later in the article).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should never ever deviate from these recommendations.
There are certainly instances where performing sets lasting fewer than 20 seconds or greater than 70 seconds in duration is indicated for hypertrophy training.
However, most of your sets (at least 70%) should fall within these norms.
Now that you know the “what” behind manipulating time under tension for hypertrophy, we need to dive into the “why.”
Some of this material is going to be a little more complicated, but I know for a fact that it will help you design even more effective training routines.
We are now truly diving into the heart of strength training program design.
Part 2: What Is Time Under Tension?
This may seem like an incredibly simple question. It’s almost like asking what a set or a rep is!
However, things are never as simple as they appear.
Time under tension is easily one of the most misunderstood training concepts in the iron game.
I know from extensive personal experience that the vast majority of weight trainees have no idea what time under tension is, much less how to calculate it or manipulate it in their own training routines!
It doesn’t have to be this way though! Time under tension is actually a very simple training concept.
The textbook definition
Time under tension is a measure of how long your sets last. That’s it!
Every set that you do, regardless of whether or not you are keeping track of how long it lasts, has a specific time under tension.
This will always be the case, unless of course you find some way to manipulate time itself (I suppose traveling at the speed of light might do the trick). I won’t hold my breath!
If you do a set of 10 reps and it takes you five seconds to complete all your reps, your time under tension for that set is five seconds.
Likewise, if it takes you 20, 50, or even 100 seconds to complete your set of ten repetitions, then your time under tension is 20, 50, or even 100 seconds!
Calculating time under tension
There are a couple of ways to calculate time under tension. The first is to use a stopwatch and literally time how long your set takes to complete.
This is a viable method, but I believe there is a better way.
The more effective method is to multiply the number of reps per set by the duration of each rep.
For example, let’s say you plan to do 8 reps on a 4/0/X/0 tempo.
That is, you lower the weight under four seconds, take a 0 second pause in the bottom position, lift the weight explosively, and pause for 0 seconds at the top position.
In this case each rep would last about (4 + 0 + 1 + 0) seconds = 5 seconds total.
We can then find the duration of the overall set as follows:
(8 reps) x (5 seconds per rep) = 40 seconds total time under tension.
If the concept of manipulating the tempo of your exercises then I highly recommend you check out the following article for more information:
Part 3: Different Types Of Hypertrophy
Not all muscle mass is created equal.
Depending on your overall training goal (and your neurotransmitter profile), you may want to focus more on training for different types of hypertrophy.
Your typical bodybuilder usually has the goal of increasing muscular hypertrophy at all costs. They just want to get as big as they can!
For these guys it does not matter too much if they are growing the contractile vs non-contractile portions of the muscle cell, or if they are training the fast twitch vs slow twitch muscle fibers.
If the muscle is growing, then they are happy!
Strength athletes such as powerlifters and strongmen are a different animal entirely.
They also include hypertrophy training in their training cycles, especially in the “offseason” far away from their competitions.
Hypertrophy has many advantages for these guys. However, the biggest upside is that increased hypertrophy can increase your future strength potential.
In the long-run, if they can build extra muscle, they can use this new muscle to lift heavier and heavier weights. Of course it is more complicated than this, but that is the gist of it.
These strength athletes have to be very careful about the types of hypertrophy they build.
Specifically they need to focus on hypertrophying the fast-twitch muscle fibers, otherwise known as functional hypertrophy.
These are the muscle fibers responsible for making you stronger and more explosive.
Let’s dive into the specifics of how to manipulate time under tension when training for hypertrophy vs functional hypertrophy.
Part 4: Time Under Tension For Hypertrophy Training
One of the keys when training for hypertrophy is to make sure that your sets last between 40-70 seconds.
This has been demonstrated repeatedly in the scientific literature and corroborated in the real-world by many of the world’s greatest strength coaches including Charles Poliquin.
The only way that you can consistently perform sets lasting 40-70 seconds is to plan your workouts ahead of time.
And yes, this means recording your workouts in a training logbook.
Let’s examine how this might look in the real world.
This begs the question, “how long should my sets last?”
To answer this question we just have to do some basic math.
40 seconds / 10 reps = 4 seconds per rep
70 seconds / 10 reps = 7 seconds per rep
Therefore, each of our reps should last between 4-7 seconds total. Here are a few sample tempos that you may want to use in this hypothetical example:
- 10 reps x 3/0/X/0 tempo (about 4 seconds per rep) = 40 seconds TUT
- 10 reps x 4/1/1/1 tempo (about 7 seconds per rep) = 70 seconds TUT
- 10 reps x 2/2/X/0 tempo (about 5 seconds per rep) = 50 seconds TUT
- 10 reps x 5/0/1/0 tempo (about 6 seconds per rep) = 60 seconds TUT
Of course you are not limited to using 10 reps for hypertrophy training.
Anything between 8-20 reps is a great place to start, although sets lower or higher than this also have their place!
The important part is to understand how to manipulate the number of reps per set and the tempo of each rep to achieve the desired 40-70 seconds time under tension per set.
Part 5: Time Under Tension For Functional Hypertrophy Training
One of the keys when training for functional hypertrophy is to make sure that your sets last between 20-40 total seconds.
In fact, sets lasting 20-30 seconds in duration may be even better.
Sets lasting longer than 40 seconds will build hypertrophy primarily through a combination of slow-twitch muscle fiber growth and an increase in non-contractile parts of the muscle cell.
In other words, sets lasting more than 40 seconds are going to help you get bigger, but not stronger!
This is a very important concept to understand. Far too many powerlifters and strongmen waste time doing sets that are actually counterproductive towards their goals!
Let’s examine how this might look in the real world.
For argument’s sake let’s say you are performing sets of five reps (a fairly typical rep range for functional hypertrophy training).
From here we can do some simple math to determine how long each rep should last:
- 20 seconds / 5 reps = 4 seconds per rep
- 40 seconds / 5 reps = 8 seconds per rep
As you can see each of our five reps should last between 4-8 seconds when training for functional hypertrophy.
Here are a few sample tempos that you may want to use in this hypothetical example:
- 5 reps x 2/1/X/0 tempo (about 4 seconds per rep) = 20 seconds TUT
- 5 reps x 5/0/X/0 tempo (about 6 seconds per rep) = 30 seconds TUT
- 5 reps x 4/0/1/0 tempo (about 5 seconds per rep) = 25 seconds TUT
As a general rule of thumb I would focus on sets of 4-8 reps when focusing on functional hypertrophy.
Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far then you’ve survived the more technical or theory-heavy part of this article.
Now it’s time for the good stuff: sample training routines!
Every aspect of each of these routines will be explained in great detail to demonstrate to you how to incorporate time under tension into real-world hypertrophy training routines!
Part 6: Sample Hypertrophy Training Routine
For this specific routine I am going to recommend you train each body part on a once-every-five-days schedule using the following Poliquin-style training split:
- Day 1: Chest / Biceps
- Day 2: Legs
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: Back / Shoulders / Triceps
- Day 5: Off
- Day 6: Repeat!
This type of split can be incredibly effective for both bodybuilders and strength athletes. It perfectly accommodates the principle of training antagonist body parts together.
Training this way has several advantages, including increased strength, decreased levels of fatigue, and an increased density of training.
All this will ultimately translate into increased muscular size!
Greg Doucette comes to mind as someone who has used a similar split in the past with great success. Josh Bryant has also touted the benefits of antagonistic body part training.
Note: if you have any trouble reading the routine below then I highly recommend you read through the following article:
It will answer all of your questions 🙂
Here is the routine:
Chest / Biceps
- A1: Flat DB press, 4 x 8-10, 4/2/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher zottman curl, 4 x 8-10, 5/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
- B1: 30 degree incline DB press, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: 30 degree incline DB fly, 3 x 12-15, 2/1/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B3: 45 degree incline DB curl (offset supinated grip), 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B4: 30 degree incline DB curl (hammer grip), 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- A1: Back squat, 4 x 8-10, 4/2/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Standing unilateral leg curl, 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/2, 90 seconds rest
- B1: Leg press, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Hack squat, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
- C1: Romanian deadlift, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- C2: 45 degree back extension (barbell on back), 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
Back / Shoulders / Triceps
- A1: Rack Chin, 4 x 8-10, 4/1/X/1, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Standing behind the neck press, 4 x 8-10, 5/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B1: T-bar row, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Seated machine pullovers, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
- B3: Flat DB extensions, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- B4: Seated french press, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
This is one of my all-time favourite ways to design a hypertrophy routine. It tends to work extremely well for a large percentage of the training populace.
If you look closely you will notice that every single set was designed to contain 40-70 total seconds of time under tension!
This is why bringing a logbook with you to the gym is so important.
There is no way in hell I am going to remember the exact tempo of six different exercises within a single workout!
If you see someone training without a logbook, then one thing is certain:
They are not controlling all of the training variables of their workouts, and they are therefore getting sub-optimal results from their training efforts.
I don’t know about you, but I CAN’T STAND the idea of getting sub-optimal training results!
Why would I want to push my body to its breaking point and beyond in a workout just to get OK results because I was too lazy to use a logbook?
I might as well stay home and play checkers if that is the case!!
Part 7: Sample Functional Hypertrophy Training Routine
For this routine I am recommending that you use an upper body / lower body split performed three days per week.
- Sunday: Off
- Monday: Upper
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Lower
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Upper
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
- Monday: Lower
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Upper
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Lower
- Saturday: Off
On week 3 you would repeat the sequence all over again.
I think it would be perfectly fine to perform this routine with a 4 days per week upper / lower split as well.
However, there is quite a bit of lumbar spine loading and I think many of you would do better to stick with three days per week for this routine.
Here are the workouts:
- A1: Incline bench press, 5 x 5, 3/1/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow neutral grip pull ups, 5 x 5, 3/1/X/1, 100 seconds rest
- A3: V-bar dips, 5 x 5, 4/0/1/0, 100 seconds rest
- A4: Cable rope face pulls (with maximum external rotation), 5 x 5, 4/0/1/2, 100 seconds rest
- A5: Seated DB external rotations, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- A6: Bilateral prone 45 degree lower trap raise, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- A1: Front squat (heels flat / narrow stance), 5 x 5, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Lying leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed in), 5 x 5, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Back squat (heels flat / medium stance), 5 x 5, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B2: Seated leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed out), 5 x 5, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
Note: the “Poliquin method” on leg curls involves dorsiflexing your ankles (pointing your toes towards your shins) on the concentric range and plantarflexing your ankles (pointing your toes away from your shins) on the eccentric range.
Check out this article to learn more about the Poliquin method on leg curls 🙂
5 x 5 routines are a classic way to train for functional hypertrophy and strength.
One of the reasons they work so well is that you are somewhat less likely to burn out on them as opposed to routines that use 4 or less reps per set.
Even many bodybuilders who normally stick with high reps can do great on a routine like this!
If you pay attention you will notice that every exercise has a time under tension per set in the 20-40 seconds range, with most of them actually falling between 20-30 total seconds.
If you have been paying attention then you will know that this is absolutely ideal when training for functional hypertrophy.
Part 8: Alternating Accumulation And Intensification Phases
There is one last thing that I would like to discuss with you in this article. And yes, it is directly related to the concept of time under tension when training for hypertrophy.
If you are a bodybuilder primarily seeking hypertrophy then you know by now that your sets should last between 40-70 seconds.
However, this only applies to pure accumulation phases. In my experience most trainees (including bodybuilders) do best alternating accumulation and intensification phases once every 2-4 weeks.
A bodybuilder’s training should probably be organized like this:
- Accumulation phase (2-4 weeks duration): 40-70 seconds TUT per set
- Intensification phase (2-4 weeks duration): 20-40 seconds TUT per set
On the other hand a strength athlete would organize their accumulation and intensification phases like this:
- Accumulation phase (2-4 weeks duration): 20-40 seconds TUT per set
- Intensification phase (2-4 weeks duration): 1-20 seconds TUT per set
Even though a certain time under tension is generally best for hypertrophy, it is important to include this type of variation in your routines.
After all, a routine is only as good as the time it takes for you to adapt to it.
Stan Efferding would certainly agree – his favourite way to train involves alternating hypertrophy blocks and strength blocks!
If you are in the middle of a dreaded hypertrophy training plateau, then consider taking a break from the pure hypertrophy work for 2-4 weeks.
When you come back to your hypertrophy training (including using the correct tempos and times under tension per set) I am confident you will break through your previous limits and soar to new heights!
Part 9: Conclusion
Time under tension doesn’t have to be a complicated topic! In fact, the rules are really quite straightforward once you learn and understand them.
If you can learn and integrate the information presented here into your own training then you will be light years ahead of your competition!
If you read this article and are still having a hard time understanding the relationship between time under tension and hypertrophy then shoot me an e-mail and I will be happy to answer your question.
Thank you for reading and best of luck in your hypertrophy training endeavors!
Don’t forget to share this article on social media to help get the word out.
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